The Weird Facebook Politics of Dakota Pipeline Protests
Did actress Shailene Woodley's arrest at a Dakota Access Pipeline site get more attention than others?
Yesterday, on Indigenous People's Day, a group of 27 protesters was arrested at a Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) site in North Dakota. One of these people was actress Shailene Woodley, who is known for her role in Divergent, as well as for being a general celebrity.
Protesters and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have been peacefully opposing the pipeline over land and water risks, as well as its disturbance of sacred sites. Last month, a federal judge overturned the tribe's request for an injunction to halt the crude oil pipeline's construction.
More than 3 million viewers watched Woodley's Facebook livestreams of the gathering near St. Anthony, one of the pipeline's construction sites. "The just grabbed me by the jacket and said I'm not going anywhere," Woodley said, handing her phone off to a friend to speak with riot police. Her arrest was among Facebook's top trending news items today.
Less than a month ago, 22 different protesters were also handcuffed and removed from a DAPL site. But instead of recording their experience through Facebook Live, they broadcast it using Livestream. When the group, called Unicorn Riot, tried to post the video to their page, it was quickly deleted by Facebook, raising questions over potential censorship.
At the time, I reached out to Facebook who insisted the deletion was in error; a bug related to their spam filter. But in light of the company's other egregious take-downs, such as the removal of Philando Castile's shooting, or the photo of Kim Phúc fleeing a napalm attack, it was worth investigating how Facebook's algorithms might be flawed.
If its filters are built by humans, and humans are inherently biased, how can we trust Facebook to deliver an unbiased representation of the news? We can't.
All of this provides a good look at how Facebook strong-arms people into its digital ecosystem. The company told me that Unicorn Riot's video was likely flagged due to the nature of its link. Such a backward approach to news—one that's based on a story's origin, rather than the virtue of its content—has undoubtedly warped the perception of the site's 1.65 billion users. Millions of people now believe that Facebook is the internet.
The more that citizens rely on social media to document offenses like police brutality, or the silencing of peaceful protesters, it's necessary that Facebook loosen its role as gatekeeper of the internet. Until it can exercise fair judgment as "the world's most powerful editor," we should continue to question the level of bias that goes into its making of the news.
"Why am I being arrested and no one else is who was down there, is my question," Woodley said while on camera. "Is it because I'm famous? Is it because people know who I am?"
"You were identified," replied a police officer.
A spokesperson for the Morton County Sheriff's Department told The Hollywood Reporter that Woodley was arrested for criminal trespassing and engaging in a riot, which could land the actress in jail for 30 days with a $1,500 fine.
"Alright, I'm being arrested. Because I was trespassing like everyone else. She was down there… Everyone was down there," Woodley added while being handcuffed.
"It's because I'm well known. It's because I have 40,000 people watching."
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